Obama’s Gray World

Don’t know if you happened to catch Frank Schaeffer on Rachel Maddow, but it was a riveting show. Given his own background as the son of a right-wing evangelist who recently converted, it would be wise to listen to Schaeffer pushing the panic button.

I confess, too, that I can’t help thinking about what Sean Penn said when he learned that Barack Obama was elected. We have “an elegant president;” that was as good as it gets, as well as an interview Dick Cavett did, thirty years ago, with another elegant man—Jimi Hendrix.

On the show, Cavett spoke about “red necks,” “white trash,” and how difficult it was to be a gifted black musician in a devoutly racist country. Having had the good fortune to have met Jimi, I suspect that, apart from being an Obama supporter, he’d empathize with him, too.

Not as much has changed over the past few decades as we might like to think. Now there are those who say this president is taking us the wrong way down a one way street, that his vision is one that leads to bigger government, and less free enterprise.

And, there are others who think that Obama isn’t heading in the direction of peace, disarmament, and transparency. They are disillusioned about this president’s openness to hawkish generals when they thought that endgame was to get out of Iraq.

The best way not to get disillusioned is not to entertain illusions in the first place. Any president with a concrete plan for either disarmament, or imminent troop withdrawal would never have been elected in the first place.

George W. Bush is blamed for nearly thousands of American and Iraqi deaths in an eight year war, but it was George H.W. Bush who brought troops into Iraq in the first place. That Papa Bush rightly decided to shrug his shoulders, fold up his tent, declare victory in the Gulf, and go home doesn’t mean that he wasn’t responsible for the error that became a huge mistake.

Likewise, Lyndon B. Johnson is the president most often associated with the Vietnam War when it was his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, who arranged for the first troops to be deployed there. Johnson took an initial commitment of 15,000 troops and raised nearly ten times. In his last speech to the American people, Kennedy acknowledged that he was “rethinking” his commitment of troops to Vietnam, and had plans for phased withdrawal, a plan, not coincidentally, sabotaged by his assassination.

That “war is a racket” we know, and have known for as long as Brigadier General Smedley D. Butlet wrote back in 1932. Still, Americans feign surprise, and disillusionment, when a president is elected who continues the status quo. Where war is concerned, the status quo is our best cash crop.

Others, like myself, see a presidency that is barely one quarter of the way along and remain optimistic that Mr. Obama, like Mr. Kennedy before him, will rethink his military objectives, and will share JFK’s vision of “complete and total disarmament.”

Some may say we’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and that may be fair. But, there is no denying the precariousness of the more than 100 new paramilitary groups which, as the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, have sprung up since Obama took office. The threats from these fringe groups, these leftover Birchers are real. Demands on the secret service, the president’s bodyguards, have increased by 400%.

While no one is suggesting blind obedience, Frank Schaeffer is right that we need to support this president, and pray for his safety. Those, on the left, who have been going after him with a viscera matching their radical right counterparts would be well advised to lighten up, and recognize that discourse has been racheted up such that it now poses a clear and present danger. The Tea Party of today is just as scary as the John Birch Society in Jimi Hendrix’s day.

This is a presidency under siege, and those who confuse verbal dysentery with dissent do a disservice to the framer’s notion of free speech.

To maintain a healthy political climate, disagreement must be accompanied with deference, and deference isn’t coming from the right, or the left frankly.

One may disagree with a president’s policies, yet still support the president. One may abjure the influence of special interests, the banksters, and Wall Street, and still press for extended unemployment benefits, a higher living wage, and greater access to affordable housing. One doesn’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water.

While Afghanistan is clearly a quagmire, and a McChrystal surge would be a huge mistake, to articulate foreign policy differences with anything less than respect is a disservice to the civil rights efforts of Malcolm X, and the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Someday, what we now witness will be seen as nothing less than civil war, but it’s about more than race, or party affiliation, it’s a war between rich and poor. With our support of this president comes the implicit understanding that he was elected to represent the poor, and hungry. Anything short of that is unacceptable.

The only mandate that can work is one that mandates equal opportunity, and equal justice under the law. So far, I have heard no mention of that kind of mandate. If nothing else, this is one president who can be prevailed upon to listen.

Something is radically wrong when the rhetoric of the left can no longer be distinguished from that of the right. Anti-war posturing must not disintegrate into anti-Obama posturing.

And, more importantly, there is a racial component to the anti-Obama rhetoric that is especially troubling, one that must not be discounted, but addressed, or there will be a moral tsunami that will reverberate for generations.

The election of Barack Obama was not about seeing the world in black or white, but gray. The dream hasn’t died. The dreamers have just woken up.

JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.


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JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.

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